'I’d love to be a part of the Ashes down under, every English cricketer grows up dreaming of winning that series,' said Mark Wood last year but after a day where he did next to nothing, the Ashes call-up looked more like a dream than reality.
Mark Wood, red-ball cricket, and the Ashes - this trio is hard to separate. At least, since the last Ashes in Australia, whenever Wood has had the red-ball in hand, the English fans couldn't stop gushing over the prospect of finally having a genuine fast bowler, sending down rockets Down Under. They have always been on the receiving end of thunderbolts, after all, especially in Australia. But, the more one sees Wood in Tests, very well knowing his vulnerable body, the very idea of even playing him in Tests is distressing enough. White-ball cricket still remains comforting on his body and his innate abilities but - both England and Wood - have always harboured the Ashes dream. He's the X-factor, after all, he's the one that they have seemingly protected, like a protégé.
In fact, he was even picked in the ongoing Test against New Zealand, despite his poor home record and furthermore, he hadn’t even taken the county cricket by storm this season. Someone like Craig Overton had. While Olly Stone had shown that he not only has the pace but the accuracy too, Mark Wood was picked ahead of him, on his X-factor.
Coming into this Test, Wood was averaging 44.91 and had a strike-rate of 77.2, comfortably the worst by any English pacer since his debut at home, if we take a minimum of five Tests. In fact, the second-worst of all, Steven Finn with an average of 34.12 and an SR of 60.5, has far better numbers. And last time when Wood started the summer ahead of a certain Stuart Broad, his inclusion might have left everyone shocked, but certainly not his listless performance that followed. But, still skipper Joe Root and the team management showed faith in Wood.
And the first day of the Lord's Test was reminiscent of his forgettable appearances in England - high on pace, but lack of wickets. He ended the day with figures of 0/49, on a day where England were on the back foot with James Anderson and Stuart Broad managing a solitary wicket between them on a placid wicket. A deck, on which an X-factor like Mark Wood was expected to thrive. Expected to make the opposition sweat. Expected to pick some wickets. But here he was, bowling decently, but unable to create chances.
At best, he was able to trouble Conway with his bouncers, but it didn't translate into a wicket as Conway continued to impress. 59% of his deliveries touched the 90mph-mark but to no avail. Ollie Robinson, much slower than him, was able to not only trouble the batters, but also be amongst wickets, with his ability to move the ball and control. Wood had not bowled badly, per se, but had a lot to prove, which he certainly didn't.
Wood finally comes into his own
On day two, with both Conway and Nicholls set at the crease, and the second new-ball swinging less at 0.65° from 1.11° with the first new-ball, England were set for a steep challenge. Day one had already proven to be the flattest first-day pitch at the Lord's in the last five years, as per CricViz's PitchViz Rating. Furthermore, in a bid to bowl full, to compensate for bowing short late on day one, England got off to a poor start, bowling loosely, trying to pitch it full and helping the batsmen get away with some cheap runs.
By the time Mark Wood had the ball in hand, New Zealand were motoring with 282 runs on board at the loss of three wickets. 500 looked inevitable. One thing that the first day had made it clear for Wood was that he needed to do more than just bowl at a high pace and bang it short.
But Wood took the challenge head-on and showed that he's a no one-trick pony. Against the run of play, he got a well-set Nicholls to a bouncer. Unlike a lot of his other bouncers, it wasn't just about banging it short at pace, not that he’s the tallest too, rather the precise positioning of the ball - around Nicholls' shoulder - like an ace move on the chessboard that broke his perseverance at the crease.
The biggest takeaway being Wood was ready to not only just play as an X-factor but do what it takes to be one. Or else, he could have lost it after day one didn’t reap rewards for his hard yards. Losing faith when things are bad comes the easiest but instead, Wood channelized his inner frustration and used it to unleash the sleeping beast with a touch of sensibility to turn things around for himself and England.
It might be BJ Watling's last summer as a Test player but Wood was in no mood to be a pleasant host. All that he cared about was to breathe fire. Lesser pace, but sharper. And this time an 88mph delivery that was full, held its line, did the trick as much as the Lord’s slope. With this wicket, the Durham pacer showed that he has the wits too. After bowing length balls, he just, at the right time dropped a full delivery, and Watling was beaten for all money to edge it to slip.
When Mitchell Santner overcommitted to a hard defence and chipped it to Anderson, Wood had already got into the head of the Kiwi batsmen and was haunting them. Santner’s wicket was a mere demonstration of that. From 282-3, New Zealand were reduced to 294-7, with Wood taking three scalps, and delivering one of his best Test spells, which at one stage read - 6-2-7-3.
Wood (0.6°) got the least swing of all the English bowlers, yet shone through the most on the day, for the simple fact that he mixed up things masterfully - bowling full mostly and using short-pitched deliveries as the surprise weapon. For fast bowlers gifted with pace - accuracy and not overdoing things - remain a key aspect, something that Wood hasn't enjoyed a lot in his Test career. But on day two, he cracked the conditions, and even bowled about 10% slower, yet sharp enough. He combined pace with other needed aspects smartly. If not for him, New Zealand were en route to 500, but his remarkable spell of bowling ensured that they didn't even make 400. Exactly, the kind of impact that makes the management stick their neck out for him even when it's unpopular.
With today's display, he has repaid the faith shown by the English set-up and grabbed his chance with both his hands. With Jofra Archer likely to miss the big Test showdown against India, there isn't a single pacer who comes close to his express pace. And this is where Mark Wood can prove to be a good shout, for the variety he brings to the attack. After all, no one even comes close to bowling as fast as he does. And on flat or slower surfaces, where Broad-Anderson turns least threatening, he can be THE MAN, to make a difference. At least, his turnaround in this Test has given ample evidence that he deserves to make a fresh start.